REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
What inspires someone to forge art and other items? Ordinarily, the person is motivated by the prospect of financial profit.
“Art and Craft” is a documentary about Mark Landis, a prolific American forger, who is indifferent to pecuniary gain. For more than 30 years, he has cranked out forgeries of a wide variety of artists, who hailed from different eras and practiced a striking diversity of genres. Landis copied the work of 19th century French Academic realist, William-Adolphe Bougereau; modern impressionist, Pablo Picasso; even animator, Walt Disney. He also copied letters by Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock, as well as historically significant deeds.
Landis is a highly skilled forger. He has augmented his artistry by mastering various technical skills. For instance, he developed the technique of rubbing the back of canvases with coffee to produce the illusion of aging.
For decades, Landis has engaged in a protracted scheme. After creating his forgeries, he posed as a wealthy philanthropist and contacted various art museums. Landis then claimed that he wished to make a donation of original artwork on behalf of a recently deceased relative.
Landis began his career by donating works to smaller museums, which were arguably without the resources to conduct due diligence. However, he became emboldened by the success of his initial scams and approached progressively more prestigious institutions. Even the venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art fell victim to his chicanery. The film fails to capture the trajectory of Landis’ career in this regard.
Landis ended up duping the putative authorities at more than 30 museums. Employing various ploys, Landis has contributed to their permanent collections. The film fails to question whether the museums were negligent in failing to be more skeptical of the supposed generosity of a total stranger. Were the museums perchance studiously ignoring some of the earmarks of a scam and being unduly credulous?
The film starts out as if it is following the pursuit of a criminal mastermind. The film introduces Matthew Leninger, the former registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. In 2007, Landis had approached Leninger and offered to donate the supposed works of Honoré Daumier, Paul Signac, Louis Valtat, and Stanislas Lépine. A cursory investigation by Leninger revealed that Landis had already donated forgeries of some of the same works to other museums. Why hadn’t any of these other institutions done similar research? Leninger is presented as some implacable foe intent upon tracking down Landis and seeking retribution. He comes across like a modern-day Inspector Javert, engaged in an obsessive hunt for Jean Valjean, the protagonist Victor Hugo’s classic “Les Misérables.” It eventually resulted in Leninger’s termination, another important fact egregiously missing from the film’s text.
So, what are Landis’ crimes? He never accepted a penny for any of the forgeries that he created. He never even declared a tax deduction on any of his donations. Essentially, Landis is flying around the country at his own expense, engaged in a mischievous scheme to misrepresent his forgeries as originals. Law enforcement officials are understandably disinterested in prosecuting Landis.
We eventually meet the gnome–like Landis. He is far from a scheming con artist, trying to get rich off of his machinations. Instead, his effete, mincing manner evokes memories of Truman Capote at the tail end of his life, when the writer was an unraveled mess.
So what drove Landis? As Landis explains, he finds the process of copying calming to his frayed nerves. When Landis was seventeen, Landis’s father died. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, then institutionalized in a mental hospital for a year and a half. The documentary does acknowledge that Landis has been alternately diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disease. However, it treats this as if it were some incidental detail about its subject. This is where the film becomes disquieting. We are watching the behavior of someone, who is driven by a psychiatric disorder. This confers an invasive and exploitative aura to the film.
Landis displayed consummate skill as an artist. Why hasn’t he pursued a career selling non- forgeries? In the course of the film, Landis inexplicably disclaims that he is an artist. The documentary fails to stress that in fact Landis has also produced numerous original works. Some of these have been sold through NARSAD Artworks, an organization dedicated to selling the creations of those with psychiatric infirmities.
“Art and Craft” follows a fascinatingly eccentric character. Unfortunately, the film is plagued with blatant methodological flaws. It ends without adequately addressing many of the salient questions about a tortured soul and the art establishment’s reaction to him.
“Art and Craft” *** No MPAA rating 89 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.